Consider this: an octopus has one central brain and possibly eight smaller brains, each for the independent control of its limbs. It also has skin that reacts to colour changes in the environment even though the octopus cannot see colour itself. How? Its skin can see. Therefore it’s possible that the octopus has several forms of consciousness operating independently. Maybe the limbs communicate with each other, and thus the octopus has three levels of awareness: the central brain, the limbs and the skin. All this is explored in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s dazzling ‘Metazoa’, a book which blew both my minds, particularly when Godfrey-Smith considers the consciousness of the octopus in light of experiments on split brain patients. Then things get very weird. If, after surgery, or damage, a patient’s brain has weak communication between its two halves, then the patient may recognise objects, but not be able to name them. Such patients live in a world that is separated into things and their names, and somehow the two never quite hold together. It is only by what Godfrey-Smith calls ‘switching’ that the patient can function – the patient must learn to switch perception from one side of the brain to the other: the vigilant right brain flips to the more forensic left. ‘In a wide range of animals, the left side of the brain specialises in identifying food, the right has an aptitude for social relations and threats.’ Maybe all humans use ‘switching’, one moment concentrating, focusing, the next, vigilant, open to new impressions. (Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and His Emissary‘ explores this subject in great depth). Could the octopus do something similar – switch its focus from central brain to its limbs, or even to its skin? ‘Metazoa’ is a book about consciousness, or perhaps subjectivities. Bees ‘are masters of logical abstraction’, insects and slugs have emotions, fish can count and even discriminate different genres of music, cuttlefish dream, rats hatch plans. With such intelligence in life forms we may have assumed were lacking in complexity, maybe its time to reconsider our attitude to all other beings, and accept that although humans may be more destructive, we aren’t so special after all.
I’m working on an idea for a play, or ‘noise opera’, ‘Mary and Jane‘ – in which I imagine them meeting in the handsome streets of Georgian Bath. Jane Austen lived in the city from 1801- 1806, Shelley arrived just over ten years later. Austen’s stay there has been described as creatively fallow, whereas it was in Bath that Shelley completed her manuscript of Frankenstein.
Austen novels seem to offer infinite interpretation, yet the author is largely a mystery. We might try and find her in her writing, but her technique of ‘free indirect’ speech, loading her third person prose with the thoughts of her characters, makes it difficult. We might like to assume that some of her character’s views represent hers, but we can never know. There is little of contemporary events in her novels (even though a close relative was guillotined in the French Revolution), almost nothing of the Napoleonic Wars, nor any scrutiny of how her wealthy men made their money. There is only a very vague sense of the country on the verge of the dramatic changes which would be triggered by the industrial revolution. Mary, younger by over twenty years, has one foot in the future. Whereas Austen’s novels seem almost pre-industrial, Shelley is firmly in the modern world: electricity, evolution, exploration, the romantic individual, these are all starkly evident in Frankenstein. Shelley left us her journals, Austen only her novels, (her sister Cassandra destroyed her letters).
Shelley’s politics cannot be doubted: she was the daughter of two radicals, her mother was, arguably, one of the first feminist philosophers. Austen can be all things to all readers, indeterminate, open to endless speculation, seen by some critics as a ‘conservative propagandist’ and yet, by stressing her characters have an intelligence and a rationality equal to any man, she too can be viewed as a feminist icon. But I know neither that well, and my search continues.
I’ve just had a revelation, a moment of inspiration, an epiphany. It started as a vague discomfort, a niggle, the feeling something needed to be put right. I was on a walking tour of Bath, a literary walk, during which I discovered that Mary Shelley wrote most of Frankenstein in that city.
Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Austen’s association with Bath is probably better known, one reason for this is that the great and the good of Bath, for some reason, denied any commemoration of Shelley’s work – probably because they knew her creation as the flat headed giant portrayed by Boris Karloff, a scar across his head, a bolt through his neck. Bath, it seems, would rather brand itself as the city of Jane Austen, of refined good manners, of the Pump Rooms and Bridgerton than of anything to do with Hammer Horror. The tour took us to some of the places associated with Mary and husband Percy Shelley, as well as her stepsister Clair Clairmont who, at the time, was living with another poet, Byron.
Something about this story stayed with me, but I wasn’t sure what it was, until a few weeks later when I realised: it was the thought that Mary Shelley and Jane Austen could have crossed paths. Mary’s book fizzes with electricity and ideas of the age, of evolution, a rage against creation, Austen’s belongs in a much earlier age. But they are similar in so many ways: precocious, smart, producing work at a prodigiously young age. Mary was very dismissive of novels, and Jane died a year before Frankenstein was published, but I want to put the two in a room together, maybe have them sitting down to tea and cakes, and see how they get on. And now it’s become an obsession. Two years ago I took my ‘noise opera’ about Arthur Machen to the Edinburgh Festival. And now I have a new project: to produce and perform ‘Mary and Jane’, even though, as yet, it is no more that a niggle, an itch, a series of notes on a scrap of paper and have no idea what it will become. At the same time I quite like the idea of recording its development here, from vague first idea, to finished show.
To give the idea some sort of tangible existence, I wrote a short story, it’s here.
Postscript: Bath has since relented on its willingness to commemorate Shelley, maybe because the old movies no longer eclipse the book to the extent that they once did. A plaque has been placed in front of the Pump Rooms and a new ‘immersive experience’ is about to open in the city: ‘Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein’. Truly horrific.
The Smile Revolution is very niche. Think of a niche as a shallow recess: an orifice. This is the subject of this oddly compelling book.
King Louis XIV sat on the French throne for seventy two years, the longest reign of any crowned head in Europe. He was the ‘Sun King’, an absolute monarch who transformed France into a great power. Versailles, once a hunting lodge, became the centre of his empire and one of the largest palaces in the world. Louis’ influence was profound, his every word and gesture considered, discussed, imitated. Louis, unlike his predecessors, did not wear a beard, and in his forties lost all his teeth. Clean shaven, and with a puckered mouth, Louis avoided smiling and if the king frowned, the frown became a fashion statement. Smiling was considered ‘an affectation which artists, connoisseurs and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning.’
When Louis needed significant and painful surgery to remove an anal fistula, courtiers approached their doctors complaining of a similar ailment, and many expressed profound disappointment to be told they did not need treatment. After Louis’ death and the rise of professional dentistry, smiling was less frowned upon. Tooth pulling was theatre, the poor were often paid for their teeth, battlefield corpses were often robbed of their teeth for dentures. Soon sufficient progress was made for dentistry to accept that teeth could be saved from the pliers. Smiling not only revealed your sensibility, it demonstrated you were wealthy enough to afford dental treatment.
But the country grew restless and ‘the Terror’, the bloodbath that followed the revolution of 1789, wiped away a generation of progressives. Antoine Lavoisier, the pioneering chemist, went to the guillotine. So did many dentists. France was once again plunged into dental darkness and the smile would remain unfashionable and uncouth for over a century.
Does language determine how we think?
In Dennis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, Arrival, aliens visit the Earth with a gift to mankind: their language. By learning this language, one of the protagonists begins to see the future as a memory. This, one of the characters explains, supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language determines how we perceive the world.
Although many have questioned the claims of the hypothesis, and to some extent it is no longer taken seriously, there is still merit in examining the idea, which is explored directly in Guy Deutscher’s ‘Through the Language Glass’ and indirectly in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made.’
Deutscher’s book begins with a long exploration of colour. William Gladstone, before becoming British Prime Minister, devoted many years to his three volume ‘Studies On Homer’. One of his most astonishing observations is that Homer does not refer to the colour blue. So the question arises, and this is central to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: if Homer had no word for blue, was he unable to perceive the colour? Homer describes the sea as ‘wine dark’, but then sheep are violet, honey is green. According to Gladstone, Homer’s colours were not facts but images, and maybe the use of green to describe honey was to convey a sense of it being fresh, like a newly snapped twig. The sea is dark, forbidding. The ‘unharvestable sea’.
Nevertheless, nothing, in Homer, is blue.
In 1898, the year that Gladstone died, W.H.R. Rivers, anthropologist and psychiatrist, while studying the people of the Murray Islands, off the coast of Australia, discovered that although they had no word for blue (they described the sea as ‘black’) they could differentiate colours as well as anyone else. Thus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was refuted.
But Deutscher’s book takes the reader along a clever path, first demonstrating that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is ‘ludicrous’, and how could anyone seriously entertain such nonsense, but then slowly pulls us back to a point on that path where it may have some substance after all, the most astonishing example being the Aborigine speakers of Guugu Yimithirr. This language does not use egocentric coordinates as we do, but geographic coordinates. Guugu Ymithirr has no words for ‘left’ and ‘right’ and doesn’t use ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’. Instead speakers use the cardinal points north, south, east and west. Instead of saying ‘John is in front of the tree’, they would say ‘John is north of the tree’. This means, of course, that they must always know where north, south, east and west are. And they do. They have, as Deutscher terms it ‘a perfect pitch’ for direction.
So, is it because they speak a particular language they are more likely to have this ‘perfect pitch’? If so, this may uphold Sapir-Whorf.
Deutscher’s book is wonderful. He leads you to agree an argument, then shows you how wrong you were to trust him. Towards the end of the book he explores ‘Russian blues’. Russian has a word for ‘light blue’ (goluboy) and ‘dark blue’ (siniy). Do Russians see these colours more distinctly because of these words? Well, yes, it seems they do, again supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
But what we’re left with is a very diluted form of the hypothesis, language does affect how we see the world. A little. Maybe not much.
If Deutscher comes to any conclusion he states it first in quoting Franz Boas: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey not in what they may convey.’ And his own pithy maxim: ‘culture enjoys freedom within constraints’.
Meanwhile Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made’ explores similar territory but with specific attention to the language of emotions. Her theory of ‘constructed emotion’ is interesting, although, compared with Deutscher’s book, her book is woolly, overlong and burdened with too much speculation. Feldman Barrett suggests that emotions do not exist, are social constructs, and ‘each of us needs an emotion concept before we can experience or perceive that emotion.’
This, I think, is central to her argument. Find a word to describe your inner state, and that inner state will be isolated, understood. Most emotions are the result of this, but what is being isolated is not necessarily something physical, but a senstation simplified because it corressponds to what is socially agreed. ‘Culture is a cohesive set of mental representations.’
Norwegians have ‘Forelsket’ the intense joy of falling in love; Russians ‘Tocka’ or spiritual anguish. And the Japanese have ‘Age-otori’ – the feeling of looking worse after a haircut. These emotions may not be unknown to English speakers, but they are more elusive. Nevertheless, she argues, they are all socially constucted and when a word is allocated to them, they have a new reality.
What Feldman Barrett advocates is a scepticism of simplistic emotional termniology, while, at the same time, exploration of a greater granulartiy of language will give us more access to our inner states, and therefore a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Graham Robb’s book ‘The Ancient Paths’ so confused and entertained me, my only response was not to attempt a critical review, but to create a series of improvisations.
The book suggests that the ancient Gauls created a road network which ran across what is now modern France, a network which was subsequently obliterated by the Romans. This in itself is contentious enough, but then Robb goes on to speculate that these roads ran in the direction of the rising and setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.
He pinpoints place names that reflect the location of ancient paths, for example any ‘middle hill’ – a station that would have been used to plot the roads, so, for example, we get Mediolanum, the Roman name for Milan.
Robb also describes the Nemetons, the Druidic temples, showing how none of them are perfectly rectangular, all slightly askew. These were based on the elliptic, the sun’s apparent journey around the zodiac. Of course!
The book verges on being so speculative it is a work of rich fantasy, but no less enjoyable for all that. So, as I said, I don’t really have the time to pick apart his arguments, even in this tenth week of Lockdown, so instead composed a series of short musical pieces.
And here they are:
The Romans failed to conquer the lands inhabited by the Germanic tribes: in 9CE when an army led by Varus was ambushed in the Teutoberg forest, the Romans suffered one of the worst routs in their history. As the Roman Empire came to its end, these tribes began to occupy what was Roman territory, and the region evolved into a conglomeration of tiny states known as The Holy Roman Empire. The Empire lost almost half its population during the massacres of the Thirty Years War, and remained fragmented until 1871, when Bismarck, then President of Prussia, pursued a war against France, and in doing so, forced the empire into uniting. France was defeated and William I was crowned first Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. Prussia had become the most militarised state in the empire, and its capital, Berlin, became the capital of this new, mighty country.
Faust’s Metropolis is the history of the German capital. It is a huge book, 800 pages, but its subject is vast and complex. Berlin lies at the heart of Germany, and has been at the centre of a European nightmare which has its origins in Prussian militarisation. Berlin has been at the epicentre of two world wars, and almost a third. The Cold War, a stand off between opposing political systems, was epitomised by the division of Berlin, and, to a great extent, ended when border was opened in 1989, and the Wall subsequently destroyed.
As far as the English speaking world is concerned, the history of Germany, and particularly, Berlin, have been foreshadowed by those catastrophic events. In most bookshops at least three quarters of any section on German history will be devoted to Hitler, the Nazis and World War One.
When Napoleon conquered Germany, he stood before the tomb of Frederick the Great in Berlin. ‘Hats off gentlemen,’ he said, ‘if he were still alive, we would not be here.’ There is no doubt that Versailles was chosen for the coronation of the first German emperor, William I, as revenge for the Napoleonic wars. The reparations set out in that treaty of 1919, ending World War One, signed in Versailles, had a significant role in the rise of the Nazis. After the invasion of France, Hitler stood before Napoleon’s mausoleum, creating a sinister symmetry with Napoleon’s tribute to Frederick. He said it was the ‘greatest moment’ of his life.
In the closing months of World War Two, Stalin’s armies swept through the Berlin, committing atrocious acts, murdering and raping, taking revenge, as they would say, for the failed Nazi invasion of their country. The city was divided, the Wall built.
Berlin has been occupied by the French, the Russians, the Americans and the British. It has been the home of Hegel, the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Dada, Brecht. Alexander Von Humboldt, an intellectual giant, born and died in Berlin, he was a scientist, explorer, mapmaker, yet his achievements remain relatively unknown in the English speaking world, probably because of wars that began and ended long after he died.
In the early 1700s the city welcomed immigrants from Denmark, Sweden, France and Scotland. There were an eccentric series of monarchs: Frederick William the First who appointed a jester to replace Leibniz in the Academy of Science, and who called intellectuals ‘dogfood’. He disguised himself as commoner and wandered the city, physically attacking those he saw as idlers. He conscripted taller men for his ‘giant grenadiers’ and made them march through his rooms. Frederick the Second, perhaps the most famous Prussian king, better known as Frederick the Great, was a tormented, bullied young man. He was an accomplished flautist, Bach wrote ‘A Musical Offering’ based on a theme he composed. Voltaire, despite being a friend of Frederick, said of Berlin it had ‘too many bayonets and not enough books.’ Indeed, Berlin, as the capital of Prussia, was at the heart of a militarisation that would spill over into the twentieth century. For many years Berlin was like a garrison town, and its citizens in awe of the military. Berliners deference to authority is beautifully encapsulated in the story of Wilhelm Voigt, an unemployed shoemaker, who, masquerading as a Prussian officer, ordered a company of troops to accompany him to the city treasury, where he was handed 4000 marks, an enormous sum at the time. He was jailed for two years, but eventually pardoned by the Kaiser, and is now something of a folk hero, a statue of him still stands, perhaps reminding Berliners that their once great reverence for authority had grave consequences for the world.
The city was completely destroyed in World War Two, very little of the past remains. More bombs were dropped on the city than on the entire United Kingdom. Most buildings from the Nazi era, and from the German Democratic Republic, have gone; the Wall has more or less disappeared. In Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie’s galvanising study, the city is conjured before our eyes, rebuilt layer upon layer, rises from the dust.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is often referred to as the greatest novel of all time. Published in 1922, it was a revolution in literary form. From then on a novel could no longer just represent reality, whether naturalist or realist, fiction was on the run. Character, plot, setting, these were no longer enough. The novel had to examine itself, the history of how it came to be. So Ulysses, although representing one day in the life of Dublin, a young man’s search for meaning, an older man’s search for love, it is The Odyssey, all history, all humanity’s search for sense. Joyce’s next work, and his last, Finnegans Wake, took him 14 years to complete. If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegans Wake is impossible. If Ulysses is one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is one night. There are characters – Earwicker, the dad, Anna Livia, mum, Shaun, Shem and Issy, the children. But the book is a dream, and it is written in dream language. There is a plot, settings, themes, but these are fluid, and everything is in flux. Earwicker dreams and is plagued by guilt. He has been accused of something. He is a hill, his wife is a river, they are the landscape of Dublin. Earwicker is Howth Head, his wife the River Liffey. At its densest, when the dreamers are in their deepest sleep, almost every word is some sort of amalgam, sentences seem to abide by syntactical rules, but then they spin off into chaos. But read it aloud and patterns, rhythms, sometimes songs emerge. It is like music. Themes emerge, disappear and reemerge like a log floating down a river. This is one of my favourite passages (and I warn you, one of the easiest).
‘Well, almost any photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone
asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt
enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively
grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
and masses of meltwhile horse. Well, this freely is what
must have occurred to our missive…’
A negative of a horse, if it melts during processing will produce a horse that is distorted, a monster, but a happy one. This is, I am sure, Joyce referring to his book, his missive. It is a happy mess. And, yes, it is very funny.
There are threads of themes, like streams, that run through the book: there are courtroom scenes, inquisitions, a letter offering evidence of guilt and innocence, meanwhile a hen pecks at litter. HC Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle mutate and reappear in hundreds of forms, as do their children, Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and Issy, Chapelizod, a village within Dublin, as Isolde, and then there is Tristan and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who often mutate into prosecutors, inquisitors.
The book is long and dense, and there is rarely any breathing space. The Wake does with fiction what Picasso did with figurative art. But whereas Picasso’s vision has been absorbed into contemporary painting, the book remains a curiosity, largely unread. And it has few successors. Anthony Burgess (who wrote a shorter version of Finnegans Wake) pays homage to Joyce in his use of language in A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker probably owes a great deal to Joyce. But these novels are far less impenetrable and a much easier read that Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s last book is about everything: gods, heroes, humanity, world history, Irish history. Published in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War Two, it almost marks the end of time, of recorded history. The book is a tip, a letter, litter, ‘scribbledehobble’. The hen picks at the litter, finds a letter, or letters, and somehow, humanity sees in this chaos its guilt. HC Earwicker’s nightmare: he is all of us, Here Comes Everybody.
After coming down from my ten performances of ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ I launched into looking into ways of staging it in south Wales. This has proved frustrating and glacially slow. I could grow carrots, cabbages and onions, breed and milk my own cows, make and market my own cole slaw, it would be easier and quicker than getting someone, anyone, in the Welsh arts world to give me even the tiniest leg up. I don’t blame individuals, it’s not a great time for the arts anywhere. Austerity, and all that. Brexit, blah blah blah. People have other things on their mind. Frustrated, and trying to keep the Robinson plate spinning, I came up with the thought that I could use the style of that show to create a series of podcasts. The last few years have been very depressing – the UK seems to have become a nation of boring, ultra-conservative, vitriolic, xenophobic philistines in gullible awe of privileged self-serving bullshitters like Rees-Mogg and Johnson. I needed to turn away from it, face a different direction, it was destroying my soul. I wanted to look at this country and find something I love. So I’ve started on a series of podcasts ‘These Weird Isles’ – a journey around less well known parts of the UK, layering memory, landscape, and the work of others who have passed the same way. There’s Batman and Gwen John in Haverfordwest, Peter Cushing in Whitstable, there are curlews and plenty of cheese. Search ‘These Weird Isles’ on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Soundcloud. Or, if you can’t find them there, they’re here.
David Byrne wants to hide, but he also wants to be found. In Everybody’s Coming to My House he protests: ‘I’m never going to be alone’. Initially he meant it as a plea to be left in peace, but on hearing the song performed by the Detroit School of Arts choir he realised it should mean the opposite: the house becomes a place of welcome, for all people, from everywhere, not a place to hide away. The American Utopia show, which I caught at Cardiff Motorpoint, is dazzling, deeply moving. The stage is bare, clear of leads, amps, or any of the usual clutter associated with rock music. Every one of the ensemble plays via radio mic, and this frees them up to move – and almost every step is choreographed. The band exudes warmth, and the glorious rhythms of the songs, the more well known ones: Once in a Lifetime, Road to Nowhere, Burning Down the House and the more recent We Dance Like This, get the place shaking, and feet moving. Byrne is sometimes at the front, but also merges with the others, one of the team, and with the final encore, Hell You Tambout, he wants everyone to join in, and you get the feeling, despite knowing it’s very unlikely, that we’d all be welcome in David Byrne’s house.